‘Virginity Pledges’ are worse than useless

‘Virginity Pledges’ are worse than useless December 29, 2008

The US (like the UK only worse) faces a major problem with teenage pregnancy, abortions, and sexually transmitted diseases. A common sense approach to fixing this problem – and one that works well in the religion-free countries of Europe – is better sex education.

An alternative, promoted by religious conservatives, attempts to persuade kids not to bonk, and then pretends that they won’t break their promise on this. It may sound comical, but it’s deadly serious. In 2008, the US government spent $204 million on these so-called abstinence-only sex education (AOSE) programs. Janet Rosenbaum, of the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, explains:

A sexual abstinence or “virginity” pledge is an oral or written promise to refrain from sexual activity, usually until marriage, administered after a multi- or single-session curriculum in religious youth groups, parochial and public schools, or large group events. The virginity pledge and 6-hour curriculum were created in 1993 by an evangelical Christian organization. The idea was subsequently spread by other Protestant and Catholic groups, which created pledges for their own AOSE programs for both religious and secular adolescents. By 1995, 13% of American adolescents reported having taken a virginity pledge.

Rosenbaum’s study, just published in the journal Pediatrics, used data from the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health, a nationally representative sample of grade 7 to 12 students interviewed in 1996 and again in 2001. Rosenbaum took the sample of pledgers, and matched them with a sample of non-pledgers who were as similar as possible in all other respects (so they were highly religious, felt bad about sex, etc).

There was absolutely no difference between the two groups in the incidence of premarital sex. This is the whole point of AOSE programs, and this study shows that they fail miserably. They are a waste of money, built upon shoddy, religiously-motivated thinking.pledgers_v_nonpledgersSo they didn’t change the chances of premarital sex. But the AOSE programs did have one significant, and substantial, effect. Of those teens who did engage in premarital sex, they significantly increased the chances that it would be risky. As shown in the figure, pledgers were significantly less likely to use birth control and much less likely to use a condom.

Why should this be? Rosenbaum explains:

Despite having had similar birth control attitudes 1 year before pledging, virginity pledgers were substantially less likely than matched nonpledgers to protect themselves against STDs and pregnancy, consistent with earlier studies.

Virginity pledgers may be less likely to use condoms and contraception because many abstinence programs cause participants to develop negative attitudes about their effectiveness.

More than 90% of abstinence funding does not require that curricula be scientifically accurate, and a 2004 review found incorrect information in 11 of 13 federally funded abstinence programs, primarily about birth control and condom effectiveness.

In other words, these abstinence programs are worse than useless because they actually discourage teens from using contraception. And they do this by feeding these kids religiously-motivated, scientifically inaccurate information. How bad can a government program get?


J. E. Rosenbaum (2009). Patient Teenagers? A Comparison of the Sexual Behavior of Virginity Pledgers and Matched Nonpledgers PEDIATRICS, 123 (1) DOI: 10.1542/peds.2008-0407

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